Sex offender registry

A sex offender registry is a system in various countries designed to allow government authorities to keep track of the residence and activities of sex offenders, including those who have completed their criminal sentences. In some jurisdictions in the United States, where sex offender registration began, registration is accompanied by residential address notification requirements. In many jurisdictions, registered sex offenders are subject to additional restrictions, including on housing. Those on parole or probation may be subject to restrictions that do not apply to other parolees or probationers. Sometimes, these include (or have been proposed to include) restrictions on being in the presence of underage persons (under the age of majority), living in proximity to a school or day care center, owning toys or items targeted towards children, or using the Internet. Sex offender registries exist in many English-speaking countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland. Sex offender registration does not exist outside of the Anglosphere, however. The United States is the only country with a registry that is publicly accessible; all other countries in the Anglosphere have sex offender registries only accessible by law enforcement.

Three differing systems exist in determining offenders' inclusion in the registry: risk-based, sentence-length-based, and offense-based. In risk-based systems, the offender is screened against a scientifically validated screening tool, and determination of inclusion is made according to the results. In sentence-length-based systems, offenders receiving sentences exceeding some determined length are included. In offense-based systems, registration is required when a person is convicted under one of the listed offenses requiring registration.

Risk-based registries reflect the determined dangerousness of registered offenders, while sentence-length-based registries reflect the severity of the crime. Offense-based registries reflect neither the dangerousness of registrants, nor the severity of their crimes. UK, Canada, and Australia have adopted either risk-based- or sentence-length-based registry schemes. In the United States, the vast majority of the states are applying offense-based registries, leaving the actual risk level of the offender and severity of the offense uncertain. The few U.S. states applying risk-based systems are pressured by Federal Government to adopt offense-based systems in accordance with Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. Studies has shown that actuarial risk assessment instruments consistently outperform the offense-based system mandated by federal law.[1] Consequently, the effectiveness of offense-based registries have been questioned by professionals, and evidence exists suggesting that such registries are counterproductive.

Some aspects of the current sex offender registries in the United States have been widely criticized by civil rights organizations Human Rights Watch[2][3] and ACLU,[4] professional organizations Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers[5][6] and Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers,[7] reformist groups Reform Sex Offender Laws, Inc.,[8] Women Against Registry[9] and USA FAIR,[10] and by child safety advocate Patty Wetterling, the Chair of National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.[11][12][13][14][15][16] Virtually no studies exist finding U.S. registries effective, prompting some researchers to call them pointless, many even calling them counter-productive, arguing that they increase the rate of re-offense.[17]

Sex offender registries by country


The Australian National Child Offender Register (ANCOR) is a web-based system used in all jurisdictions. Authorized police use ANCOR to monitor persons convicted of child sex offences and other specified offences once they have served their sentence. Offenders are monitored for eight years, 15 years or the remainder of their life (four years or 7½ years for juvenile offenders). On 1 March 2011, there were 12,596 registered offenders across Australia.


Canada's National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR) came into force on 15 December 2004, with the passing of the Sex Offender Information Registration Act (SOIR Act).[18] The public does not have access to the registry.

Since 2001, the Province of Ontario operates its own sex offender registry concurrently with the federal registry. Unlike the federal registry which has an opt-out provision if an offender can convince a judge they are not a threat, the Ontario registry has no such provision. As a result, individuals who have been convicted of a designated offence at any time after 2001, and relocate to Ontario, are obligated to register for a period of at least 10 years. The registration period begins on the day the ex-offender relocates to Ontario.[19]


Under the 2001 Sexual Offenders Act, all those convicted of certain sexual offenses are obliged to notify the police within 7 days their name and address. They must also notify the police of any changes to this information or if they intend to stay somewhere other than their registered address for more than 7 days (including if they are traveling abroad). Individuals are subject to these registration requirements for varying durations, based on a sliding scale of the severity of the sentence they received. This scale is as follows:

Sentence Notification period
Suspended or non-custodial 5 years
6 months or less 7 years
6 months to 2 years 10 years
More than 2 years Indefinitely

New Zealand

The New Zealand government has plans to introduce a sex offenders register by the end of 2014. It will be managed by the New Zealand Police and information will be shared between the Police, Child, Youth and Family, the Department of Corrections, the Ministry of Social Development, and the Department of Building and Housing—government agencies which deal with child safety. Like the Australian and British registers, the New Zealand sex offenders register will not be accessible to the general public but only to officials with security clearance. It will also include individuals who have been granted name suppression. This proposed register has received support from both the ruling National Party and the opposition Labour Party. However political lobby group the Sensible Sentencing Trust has criticised the proposed register for its lack of public access.[20][21][22]

On 4 August 2014, the New Zealand Cabinet formally approved the establishment of a sex offenders register.[23] According to the Minister of Police and Corrections Anne Tolley, Cabinet has agreed to allocate $35.5 million over the next ten years for the technology component of the register and initial ICT work is underway as of 14 August 2014. The sex offenders' register is expected to be operational by 2016 once enabling legislation is passed and changes are made to the Corrections Act to enable information sharing.[24]

South Africa

The National Register for Sex Offenders was established in terms of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 2007. It records the details of anyone convicted of a sexual offence against a child or a mentally disabled person. The public does not have access to the registry; it is available to employers of people who work with children or mentally disabled people, to authorities responsible for licensing institutions that care for children or mentally disabled people, and to those responsible for approving foster care and adoptions. People listed on the register are prohibited from working with children or mentally disabled people, from managing institutions that care for children or mentally disabled people, and from being foster parents or adoptive parents.[25]

Trinidad and Tobago

The Sexual Offences Act Chapter 11:28 Part III provides for Notification Requirements for Sex Offenders. This Sex Offenders Registry is only accessible to the Police Service and other branches of government. There are several gaps in this policy noted by members of the Caribbean Committee against Sex Crimes, most notably that the registry only deals with offenses committed within the Jurisdiction of Trinidad and Tobago. Persons who are registered Sex Offenders from other jurisdictions are not registered when they immigrate or are deported to Trinidad and Tobago.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the Violent and Sex Offender Register (ViSOR) is a database of records of those required to register with the Police under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, those jailed for more than 12 months for violent offences, and unconvicted people thought to be at risk of offending. The Register can be accessed by the Police, National Probation Service and HM Prison Service personnel. It is managed by the National Policing Improvement Agency of the Home Office.

United States

Sign at the limits of Wapello, Iowa; sex offender-free districts appeared as a result of Megan's Law.

Sex offender registries in the United States consists of federal and state level systems designed to collect information of convicted sex offenders for law enforcement and public notification purposes. All 50 states and District of Columbia maintain registries that are open to public via sex offender registration websites, although some registered sex offenders are visible to law enforcement only. According to NCMEC, as of 2015 there were 843,260 registered sex offenders in United States.[26] Registrants have to periodically appear in person to their local law enforcement for purposes of collecting their personal information, such as photograph, fingerprints, name, scars, tattoos, living address, place of employment and vehicle information.

Information pertaining to names, addresses, physical description and vehicles are made public via official websites. In addition, registrants are often subject to restrictions that bar loitering, working or living within exclusion zones that sometimes cover entire cities and have forced registrants into encampments, such as Julia Tuttle Causeway sex offender colony.[27][28]

Anthropology professor Roger Lancaster has called the restrictions "tantamount to practices of banishment" that he deems disproportional, noting that registries include not just the "worst of the worst", but also "adults who supplied pornography to teenage minors; young schoolteachers who foolishly fell in love with one of their students; men who urinated in public, or were caught having sex in remote areas of public parks after dark." In many instances, individuals have pleaded guilty to an offense like urinating in public decades ago, not realizing the result would be their placement on a sex offender registry, and all of the restrictions that come with it.[29]

Depending on jurisdiction, offenses requiring registration range in their severity from public urination or children and teenagers experimenting with their peers, to violent predatory sexual offenses. In some states non-sexual offenses such as unlawful imprisonment may require sex offender registration.[30] According to Human Rights Watch, children as young as 9 have been placed on the registry for sexually experimenting with their peers.[3][31] Juvenile convicts account for as much as 25 percent of the registrants.[32] Federal Adam Walsh Act encourages states to register juveniles by tying federal funding to the degree to which state registries comply with the law’s classification system for sex offenders.[32]

States apply differing sets of criteria dictating which offenders are made visible to public. Some states scientifically evaluate the future risk of the offender and hide low-risk offenders from public. In other states, offenders are categorized according to the tier level related to statute of conviction. Duration of registration vary usually from 10 years to life depending on the state legislation and tier/risk- category. Some states exclude low tier offenders from public registries while in others, all offenders are publicly listed.[33] Some states offer possibility to petition to be removed from the registry under certain circumstances.

Majority of states apply systems based on conviction offenses only, where sex offender registration is mandatory if person pleads or is found guilty of violating any of the listed offenses, regardless the nature of the offense or offender. Under these systems, sentencing judge does not sentence convict into sex offender registry and cannot usually use judicial discretion to forgo registration requirement, even if he thinks the registration would be unreasonable taking account mitigating factors pertaining to individual cases. Instead, registration is mandatory collateral consequence of criminal conviction.[34] Due to this feature, laws target a wide range of behaviors and tend to treat all offenders the same. Civil right groups,[3][35] law reform activists,[10][36][37] academics,[38][39] some child safety advocates,[11][12][13][14][15][40] politicians[41] and law enforcement officials[42] think that current laws often target wrong people, swaying attention away from high-risk sex offenders, while severely impacting lives of all registrants,[43][44][45][46] and their families,[47][48] attempting to re-integrate to society.

The Supreme Court of the United States has upheld sex offender registration laws twice, in two respects. Several challenges to some parts of state level sex offender laws have succeeded, however.

Application to offenses other than felony sexual offenses

Sex offender registration has been applied to crimes other than rape, child molestation, and child pornography offenses and is sometimes applied to certain non-sexual offenses.[49]

In Connecticut, those with state convictions for certain misdemeanors have to register, including: Public Indecency, in violation of C.G.S. § 53a-186, provided the court finds the victim was under 18; and Sexual Assault, 4th Degree, in violation of C.G.S. § 53a-73a.[50]

In New York and various other states, crimes that society does not necessarily view as sexual in nature are also considered to be registerable sex offenses, such as kidnapping, "sexual misconduct", unlawful imprisonment, and in some cases "sexually motivated offenses" (such as assault, burglary, etc.) that are not categorized as sexual offenses unless the court determines that the offense was committed pursuant to the offender's own sexual gratification. In New York specifically, kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment are registerable offenses only if the victim is under 17 and the offender is not a parent of the victim.[51]

In Kentucky, all sex offenders who move into the state and are required to register in their previous home states are required to register with Kentucky for life, even if they were not required to register for life in their previous residence.[52]

A few states have also created separate online registries for crimes other than sex offenses. Montana, for example, has a publicly accessible violent offender registry that includes crimes such as aggravated assault, robbery, assaulting a police officer, both deliberate and non-deliberate homicide and a third conviction for domestic violence. Kansas has publicly accessible registries of people convicted of both serious drug offenses and people convicted of crimes involving a weapon. Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Montana all have publicly accessible registries for those convicted of murder. Florida requires all felons, regardless of the crime, to register with law enforcement for 5 years after release, although the Florida felon registry is not available to the general public. If a felon in Florida is convicted of enough non-sexual felonies in a certain period of time, however, they are required to register for the rest of their life on a "Habitual Offender" registry that is available to the general public. Ohio even has a publicly accessible registry for people convicted 5 or more times of drunken driving.

In 2014, a murder registry was proposed in Rhode Island and an animal abuser registry was proposed in Pennsylvania. A bill to create a publicly accessible registry for domestic violence offenders passed the Texas House of Representatives in 2013, but was not voted on in the Texas Senate.

Public disclosure of sex offender information

Currently, only the United States allows, and more often than not, requires public disclosure of offender information, regardless of individual risk. Other countries do not make sex offender information public, unless the risk assessment has been conducted and the offender has been determined to pose high risk of re-offending.

In the United States

In some localities in the United States, the lists of all sex offenders are made available to the public: for example, through the newspapers, community notification, or the Internet. However, in other localities, the complete lists are not available to the general public but are known to the police. In the United States offenders are often classified in three categories: Level (Tier) I, Level II, and Level III offenders, Information is usually accessible related to that level (information being more accessible to the public for higher level offenders). In some US jurisdictions, the level of offender is reflecting the evaluated recidivism risk of the individual offender, while in others, the level is designated merely by the virtue of conviction, without assessing the risk level posed by the offender.

In general, in states applying risk-based registry schemes, low-risk (Tier I) offenders are often excluded from the public disclosure. In some states only the highest risk (Tier III) offenders are subject to public disclosure, while some states also include moderate-risk (Tier II) offenders in public websites.[33]

In SORNA compliant states, only Tier I registrants may be excluded from public disclosure, but since SORNA merely sets the minimum set of rules that states must follow, many SORNA compliant states have adopted stricter system and have opted to disclose information of all tiers. Some states have disclosed some of Tier I offenders,[53] while in some states all Tier I offenders are excluded from public disclosure.[33]

Just like states differ with respect to disclosure of information regarding different Tiers/Levels, they also differ with respect to classifying offenses into tiers. Thus, identical offenses committed in different states could produce very different outcomes in terms of public disclosure and registration period. Offense classified as Tier I offense in one state with no public disclosure, might be classified as Tier II or Tier III offense in another, leading to considerably longer registration period and public disclosure. These disparities in state legislation have caused unexpected problems to some registrants when moving from state to another, finding themselves subject to public disclosure on their destination state's sex offender website, and longer registration periods (sometimes for life), even though they originally were excluded from public registry and required to register for a shorter period. Some states appear to apply "catch-all" statutes for former registrants moving in to their jurisdiction, requiring registration and public posting of information, even when the person has completed their original registration period. At least one state (Illinois) reclassifies all registrants moving in the state into the highest possible tier (Sexual Predator), regardless of the original tier of the person, leading to a lifetime registration requirement and being publicly labelled as a "Sexual Predator".[54] As noted previously, Kentucky requires lifetime registration for all currently registered individuals who move into the state.

Determining the Tier level and whether or not a person would be subject to public disclosure, when relocating to another state might be close to impossible to tell without consulting an attorney or officials responsible for managing registration in the destination state, due to constantly changing laws and vagueness in some states legislative language.

While these disparities in level of public disclosure among different states might cause unexpected problems to registration, they have also caused some registrants to move into locations where public disclosure of lower level offenders is not permitted, in order to avoid public persecution and other adverse effects of public disclosure they were experiencing in their original location.[55]

Additional restrictions beyond public notice

Sex offenders on parole or probation are generally subject to the same restrictions as other parolees and probationers.

Sex offenders who have completed probation or parole may also be subject to restrictions above and beyond those of most felons. In some jurisdictions they cannot live within a certain distance of places children or families gather. Such places are usually schools, worship centers, and parks, but could also include public venues (stadiums), airports, apartments, malls, major retail stores, college campuses, and certain neighborhoods (unless for essential business). In some states, they may also be barred from voting after a sentence has been completed and, at federal level, barred from owning firearms, like all felons.

Some states have Civil Commitment laws, which allow very-high-risk sex offenders to be placed in secure facilities, "in many ways like prisons", where they are supposed to be offered treatment and regularly reevaluated for possible release. In practice, most states with Civil Commitment centers rarely release anyone. Texas has not released anyone in the 15 years since the program was started.[56] In 2015, in response to a class action lawsuit, a Federal judge ruled Minnesota's Civil Commitment program to be unconstitutional, both for not providing effective treatment and for not fully releasing anyone since the program was started in 1994.[57]

The state of Missouri now restricts the activities of registered sex offenders on Halloween, requiring them to avoid Halloween-related contact with children and remain at their registered home address from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., unless they are required to work that evening. Regardless of whether they are at work, offenders must extinguish all outside residential lighting and post a sign stating, "No candy or treats at this residence - sex offender at this residence".[58]

In the United Kingdom, anyone convicted of any criminal offence cannot work in the legal, medical, teaching, or nursing professions. List 99 includes people convicted of sex offences barred from working in education and social work, though it also includes people convicted of theft, fraud, corruption, assault, and drugs offences.

Facebook and Twitter prohibit any convicted sex offender from accessing or contributing to their websites.[59]

Effectiveness and consequences

The vast majority of sexual offense victims are known to the offender, either relatives, family friends, or other adults such as teachers; this is contrary to media depictions of stranger assaults or child molesters who kidnap children unknown to them.[60] Thus, despite the public awareness of the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders, there has been no evidence shown that mandatory registration has made society safer. According to ATSA, only in the states that utilize empirically derived risk assessment procedures and publicly identify only high risk offenders, has community notification demonstrated some effectiveness.[39][61] The majority of U.S states do not utilize risk assessment tools when determining ones inclusion on the registry, although studies have shown that actuarial risk assessment instruments, which are created by putting together risk factors found by research to correlate with re-offending, consistently outperform the offense based systems.[62]

Studies almost always show that residency restrictions increase offender's recidivism rates by increasing offender homelessness and increasing instability in a sex offender's life. According to a Department of Justice study, 5.3% of sex offenders who were released from prison in 1994 were arrested for a new sex offense after 3 years.[63] Robbers, arsonists and property crime committers (all of which have a recidivism rate of 60–70 percent after 3 years) were the most likely to re-offend group. Despite the public perception of sex offenders as having high recidivism, sex offenders had the second lowest recidivism rate, after only murderers. A later study done by the Department of Justice showed an even lower sex offender recidivism rate of about 2.1 percent after 3 years. However, since sex crimes are the most under-reported crimes,[64] whether or not the Department of Justice's 5.3% sex offender recidivism rate is deceptively low is unclear. Recidivism rates only measure how many people return to prison or are arrested for a new offense and do not measure how many people actually commit a new criminal offense (some criminals commit new offenses after release from prison but do not get caught.) In the late 2000s, a study showed that Indiana sex offenders have recidivism of about 1.03% after 3 years.[65] Studies consistently show sex offender recidivism rates of 1–4% after 3 years, recividism is usually at about 5–10% after a long follow up (such as a 10–25 year follow up.)

A study done by professors from Columbia University and the University of Michigan found that having police-only sex offender registries (such as the registries in Britain, Canada and Australia) significantly reduces sex offender recidivism, but making information about sex offenders publicly available significantly increases recidivism rates.[66] This is because making sex offender information public increases offender stress and also makes the thought of returning to prison less threatening, as some sex offenders may feel returning to prison is not significantly worse than being on the public registry. Some sex offenders may come to view their central identity as being that of a sex offender due to the registry, and the more a sex offender views themselves as being a criminal the more likely they are to reoffend. However, the study also found that making sex offender registration publicly available may deter some potential first time sex offenders from committing an offense that would get them on the registry in the first place. The thought of getting on the sex offender registry may or may not deter non-sex offenders from committing sex crimes.

A 2008 study found no evidence that New York's registry or notification laws reduced sexual offenses by rapists, child molesters, sexual recidivists, or first-time sex offenders.[67]

A study by University of Chicago graduate student Amanda Agan compared sex offender recidivism rates in states where sex offenders were required to register in 1994 with states where they were not required to register in 1994. The results of the study were that sex offender recidivism was, in fact, slightly lower in states where sex offenders were not required to register. This made Agan question whether creating sex offender registries was a rational idea. The study also showed that blocks in Washington DC where sex offenders lived did not have higher molestation rates than blocks where sex offenders did not live.[68]

In at least two instances, convicted sex offenders were murdered after their information was made available over the Internet.[69] The spouse, children and other family members of a sex offender often have negative consequences as a result of having a family member on the registry. For example, residency restrictions will make it harder for a sex offender's spouse and children, not just a sex offender themselves, to find housing. Residency restrictions may even cause a sex offender's family to be homeless. Sex offenders' spouses and children can also face harassment and financial hardship as a result of their loved one's sex offender status. More than half of the children of sex offenders say that fellow students treat them worse due to a parent's RSO status.

The Human Rights Watch organization criticized these laws in a 146-page report published in 2007,[2] and in another report in 2013.[3]

Registration and homelessness

People who are registered in offender databases are usually required to notify the government when they change their place of residence. This notification requirement is problematic in cases where the registered offender is homeless.

The state of Washington is among those that have special provisions in their registration code covering homeless offenders, but not all states have such provisions. A November 2006 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling exempts homeless persons from that state's registration requirements, which has prompted a drive to compose new laws covering this contingency.

News reports in 2007 revealed that some registered sex offenders were living outside or under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami, Florida because Miami-Dade County ordinances, which are more restrictive than Florida's state laws, made it virtually impossible for them to find housing. The colony at the causeway grew to as many as 140 registrants living there as of July 2009, but eventually became a political embarrassment and was disbanded in April 2010, when the residents moved into acceptable housing in the area. However, many have lapsed back into homelessness, sleeping alongside railroad tracks.[70]

As of 2013 Suffolk County, New York, which had imposed onerous restrictions on sex offenders exceeding those required by New York state law, was faced with a situation where 40 sex offenders were living in two cramped trailers located in isolated locations.[71] This situation had been created by the county in 2007 as a solution to the problem of housing sex offenders.[72]

See also


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  71. Michael Schwirtz (4 February 2013). "In 2 Trailers, the Neighbors Nobody Wants". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 February 2013.
  72. Corey Kilgannon (17 February 2007). "Suffolk County to Keep Sex Offenders on the Move". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 February 2013. Now officials of this county on Long Island say they have a solution: putting sex offenders in trailers to be moved regularly around the county, parked for several weeks at a time on public land away from residential areas and enforcing stiff curfews.

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